Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Past, Present, Future; Afterlives and Meaning

My last post reminded me of a 2013 Opinionator piece from the New York Times.  I'm going to quote at length because it's provocative and consistently bounces around my head a year and a half after I first read it.  Riffing on the idea of an afterlife, Scheffler states how he doesn't believe in some otherworldly destination, but notes how critical it is for humans to assume that others will live on after us.
Astonishing though it may seem, there are ways in which the continuing existence of other people after our deaths — even that of complete strangers — matters more to us than does our own survival and that of our loved ones.
Scheffler notes how disturbing it is to imagine the world of people disappearing even after one's own death.  Our sense of being part of a social continuum isn't restricted to the present:
Notice that people do not typically react with such a loss of purpose to the prospect of their own deaths. Of course, many people are terrified of dying. But even people who fear death (and even those who do not believe in a personal afterlife) remain confident of the value of their activities despite knowing that they will die someday. Thus there is a way in which the survival of other people after our deaths matters more to us than our own survival.
This should give us pause. The knowledge that we and everyone we know and love will someday die does not cause most of us to lose confidence in the value of our daily activities. But the knowledge that no new people would come into existence would make many of those things seem pointless.
By definition, symbols and meaning are created before we experience, modify and inhabit them; they are products of the past.  After all, a classic definition of a symbol is something thrown together through social convention.  Our lives depend and feed on meaning in the present, but we want that meaning to endure, as
most of us pursue our goals and seek to realize our values within a framework of belief that assumes an ongoing humanity. Remove that framework of belief, and our confidence in our values and purposes begins to erode
It seems that the future is also needed to sustain meaning, without confidence about the persistence of people, we become formless monsters.
There is also a lesson here for those who think that unless there is a personal afterlife, their lives lack any meaning or purpose. What is necessary to underwrite the perceived significance of what we do, it seems, is not a belief in the afterlife but rather a belief that humanity will survive, at least for a good long time.
We need to believe in a future filled with people in order to act in the world today.

I'd really be interested if such a sense is common in other cultural contexts.  I'm not one to argue for such a specific belief to be part of a singular human nature, but there's seems to be something to this idea.

If I were to argue for a single thing that makes all humans human, I'd say that it's our ability to make and experience meaning and that process only occurs through the collaborative actions of many people.  If that is the case, I guess that the idea of the end of that collective process would be deeply troubling to all people.


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